Unit 5: Justice

Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory

Luke Tucker

Luke Tucker is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He is mainly interested in political philosophy. The topic of his dissertation is the epistemological roots of conservatism.

“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”[1]Thus begins Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s classic political treatise, The Social Contract, the aim of which is to offer a solution to the puzzle so memorably stated in its opening line.

Human beings are free beings, not just in the superficial political sense of desiring not to be dominated by tyrants, but also in the deep metaphysical sense of living as the will in each of us leads. Unlike other organisms found in nature, we are not under the full control of instinct or appetite or any other automatic biological force. On the contrary, we choose for ourselves what our ends will be and how we will pursue them. Indeed, Rousseau thinks our species is distinguished from all other animals not by our rationality or compassion, both of which animals also possess to a degree, but by our possessing free will.

Yet despite this capacity for deep freedom, we find ourselves living in societies that everywhere impose constraints on our exercise of freedom. Not only do our societies prohibit certain acts, such as trespassing, driving too fast, and smoking in restaurants, they also compel us to do certain acts we would otherwise have no desire for, such as paying taxes, serving on juries, and registering for the draft. We nevertheless obey, because we must, for anyone who does not willingly obey is either coerced into obedience or punished.

Whatever inconvenience such constraints may inflict on us, however, we typically do not view all constraints on human freedom as illegitimate. Lawlessness is an evil, same as tyranny. But some laws are indeed unjust. What factor, then, separates the just from the unjust? For Rousseau, the answer is consent. The only legitimate constraints on my choices, and likewise the only duties, obligations, and authorities that I am morally required to respect, are those which I have willingly accepted for myself. Without consent, constraints, duties, and authority lack all legitimacy.

If there is any exception to this rule for Rousseau, it may be within the family, where the authority of parents and the duty of children to obey arise naturally, from the total dependence of the latter on the former, not from consensual agreement. Still, even these natural obligations have an expiration date, when the child reaches maturity and becomes his or her own master. Beyond this crucial point, consent becomes a necessary condition for legitimate authority.

Thus, Rousseau parts with his modern predecessors, Hobbes and Locke, in important ways. First, against Hobbes, Rousseau does not recognize any ‘right of the strongest.’ A right is a claim that deserves respect even absent force. But if you subjugate me to your will by force, not by consent, I am only obligated to respect your command as long as your powers exceed mine. If at any moment I sense I can overpower you, or simply escape, my doing so is permitted. Your command is entirely contingent upon your strength and so is not a true right.

Second, against Locke, Rousseau rejects that people can ever legitimately forfeit their rights and be submitted to the arbitrary will of another. Whereas Locke argues that people can lose their rights – even those as precious as the right to life – if they willingly instigate an unjust war and suffer defeat, Rousseau argues to the contrary that our freedom makes us human and, as a matter of logic, cannot be traded away. The very idea is contradictory. Hence, even losers of war retain their rights.

So, for Rousseau, consent is a necessary condition for legitimate authority over human beings. Notice, though, that we have not solved our original puzzle so much as articulated it with more clarity. Human beings are free beings, over whom the exercise of legitimate authority absolutely and without exception requires consent, yet we find ourselves everywhere encumbered with constraints and duties imposed on us by coercive governments. How can these joint facts, the one moral and the other empirical, be reconciled theoretically, without denying the truth of either and without conceding the unintuitive conclusion that all our encumbrances are illegitimate?

This, according to Rousseau, is the fundamental question confronting the political philosopher. As he puts it, the task of the political philosopher is to “find a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.”[2]

Rousseau has a ready answer to this fundamental question. He argues that a society can exercise an authority over citizens that is simultaneously legitimate and absolute, provided two conditions obtain. First, the society must have been founded upon unanimous consent, with all founding members giving equal approval to the terms. Consent is necessary here because, as previously established, it alone can legitimize authority, and the consent must be unanimous because no one can grant consent on anyone else’s behalf. Second, not just any pact will do but, crucially, only one that recognizes the general will to be absolutely sovereign over the society and its laws.

While the first of these conditions aligns Rousseau with a long social contract tradition, spanning from Hobbes to Rawls and which holds the concept of a social contract to be the ultimate standard of political legitimacy, the second condition is a unique contribution and so distinguishes Rousseau from other theorists. It is here where students of Rousseau will want to focus their attention.

What is the general will? In short, it is the will of the people considered as a unified whole. When the social contract is ratified, the wills of many individuals are incorporated into one, and what emerges, as though by a chemical reaction, is a new collective entity, a republic, in the original Latin sense of the word. It is more than the sum of its parts. It is like an organism, with a will of its own, and like all organisms it wills its own good. So, the notion of the general will, the will of the republic, is completely conceptually distinct from the private wills of individual citizens, which prioritize those citizens’ particular interests, and also from the ‘will of all’, which is just those private wills amassed in a messy, heterogenous clump. The general will is oriented not to any private interest, but to the common interest shared by all.

As an analogy it might help to think of a football team. Each of the players on the team has a private will as a player. Each may want to be a starter or the team captain or the quarterback’s favored passing target. But the team itself, as a unified whole, also has its own, general will, in which each player, in his or her capacity as a teammate, shares. Given no one can win the game solo, the questions of who should start, who should be team captain, and who the quarterback should target are questions for the general will, not any private will.

Why must the general will, in a republic, serve as the sovereign, the one power that decides what laws are enacted? The simple reason is that, for Rousseau, consent alone can confer legitimate authority. But again, not all consensual agreements are valid. No one can consent to the arbitrary rule of another, for instance. The very idea involves trading away your capacity as a human being to will things, and so is a contradiction. Again, Rousseau’s view here contrasts with Hobbes and Locke, both of whom suggest that mere consent is sufficient to legitimize, within certain bounds, almost any political arrangement. Individuals begin in the state of nature as their own sovereigns, but upon entering society they transfer their sovereignty either to the will of a single ruler, as in Hobbes, or to the will of the majority, as in Locke.

Rousseau, in contrast, rejects that such a transfer of sovereignty can legitimately occur. Only your own will can govern you. No democratic majority, and certainly no single ruler, can rightfully enact laws over you of which you disapprove. The genius, then, of the notion of the general will is that it allows society to coercively execute laws without encroaching on any citizen’s liberty. When the general will is sovereign, any law that you are forced to obey is a law that you commanded for yourself, to the extent that you, as with all other citizens, have a share in the general will. Even when coerced, therefore, you “remain as free as before.”

But why, if the general will is to be sovereign, must its sovereignty be absolute? Rousseau gives a few reasons, of which I will discuss the two most interesting. First, for the general will to place a legal limit on its power would require it to make a contract with itself. But contracts necessarily involve more than one party. No singular entity, whether private or collective, with a singular, unified will can be bound by a contract with itself. The very idea is incomprehensible. Thus, because the general will belongs to a singular entity, i.e. the republic, it cannot be bound by any contract with itself.

Second, it is vital to the very existence of the republic that each citizen’s private will be completely subordinate to the general will. Think again about the football team. If any player prizes his or her own private will over the general will of the team, they are not really a teammate in the proper sense, given to be a teammate is to commit oneself to the team’s common good. Further, if every player on the team prizes his or her will over the team’s general will, there is no team at all, just a mass of disunited players. Likewise, in the context of a republic, if anyone prioritizes his or her own will, they are not a citizen in the proper sense, and if all citizens prioritize their own wills, there is literally no republic, just a mass of disunited individuals.

Thus, Rousseau thinks, forming a republic requires each citizen to surrender all claims of liberty and place “all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will.” This may sound extreme, but again, because each citizen shares in the general will, all laws are commands given to themselves by themselves. No claims of liberty are needed.

Some readers may remain uneasy about the idea of surrendering all of one’s rights to an absolute sovereign. Why would anyone willingly bind themselves to such a society? This question may be better asked another way. What, on Rousseau’s account, do people gain by leaving the state of nature and entering society? The answer is that they exchange their natural liberty for a more advantageous form of liberty. In the state of nature, an imagined pre-political situation where no government exists to regulate behavior, you have no rights to anything that you cannot take, and keep, by your own powers. As such, no one has very much stuff, given the natural limitations of individual effort, and the stuff people do have is insecure, constantly at risk of being stolen by a stronger, smarter, sneakier or simply luckier competitor.

Of course, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau does not think the lives of pre-political people are miserable. He does, however, believe that life in the republic is better. Whereas in the state of nature there are only mere possessions, in civil society there is property, which is what one’s possessions become upon receiving the collective recognition and protection of the body politic. Thus, upon entering society, each person “recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has.”[3]

To conclude, while Rousseau’s political theory has fascinated and inspired many readers through the centuries, it has also garnered fierce criticism. Scholars from Bertrand Russell to Karl Popper to Isaiah Berlin have labeled Rousseau an advocate of totalitarianism, given his emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of the general will. A cursory reading of The Social Contract may support this interpretation. Still, many scholars, such as Philip Pettit, regard Rousseau as a champion of classical republican and egalitarian values and principles, so the question of how to assess Rousseau is far from settled. Curious students will want to read Rousseau’s political texts and judge their value for themselves.

Check Your Understanding

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Additional Resources

A video on the history Enlightenment ideas, including discussions of Rousseau’s Emile and The Social Contract.

A podcast on the social contract tradition, with a heavy emphasis on Rousseau.

An encyclopedic entry on Rousseau’s major ideas and texts.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1968. Print.Testing this line. Why is it stacked?





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  1. Rousseau, The Social Contract, 49.
  2. Rousseau, The Social Contract, 60.
  3. Rousseau, The Social Contract, 61.


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